NEWARK, N.J. (Legal Newsline) - New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa announced a $2.2 million state court judgment on Tuesday against a legal assistance organization and its owner for allegedly exploiting prisoners and their families.
The Project Freedom Fund and Bruce Buccolo, the company's owner, allegedly misled prison inmates and their families into paying hundreds of dollars for legal services. The defendants then allegedly pocketed the money and failed to perform the agreed upon work.
Under the terms of a final judgment by default and order, the defendants are barred from offering legal services in New Jersey. The judgment was entered by Superior Court Judge Kenneth S. Levy.
"The defendants have preyed upon an especially vulnerable and disadvantaged group of victims: inmates seeking to return to society, and their supportive family members, many of whom had very little money and an incomplete understanding of the law," Chiesa said. "We will aggressively pursue anyone who assumes the guise of a non-profit organization in order to exploit the needy."
The Project Freedom Fund allegedly portrayed itself as a non-profit legal services organization and described its mission as offering legal aid to poor jailed and imprisoned inmates. Unlike legitimate charitable legal service organizations, the defendants allegedly induced inmates and their families to pay non-refundable, up-front $350 fees and gave no meaningful legal services in return.
When the company did try to perform legal services, they were allegedly performed by a disbarred attorney or by Buccolo, who is not an attorney.
The company allegedly coaxed inmates to pay the upfront fee by asking family members and friends to bear the burden.
The Division of Consumer Affairs received complaints against The Project Freedom Fund from 34 inmates or relatives of inmates who were affected by the actions of the defendants.
Buccolo and The Project Freedom Fund allegedly engaged in 210 violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and Advertising Regulations. The defendants allegedly violated the law by soliciting business through misleading advertisements, failing to provide contracted-for services and using money paid to a purported non-profit for personal use.
Under the terms of the judgment, the defendants must pay $2.2 million, including $26,000 in consumer restitution, $51,000 for attorney fees, $13,000 for costs and $2.1 million in civil penalties.